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It's August, and the Mets are ahead of the Nationals

How is this possible?

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

It was late January when the Nationals signed Max Scherzer. All of the preseason baseball magazines were close to press time. Predictions had already been made, revised and updated. The Nationals were the best team in the NL East, if they weren't the best team in the National League, if they weren't the best team in baseball. And then they got Scherzer. They weren't guaranteed a World Series, because that's not how baseball works, but they were guaranteed baseball's best shot at the postseason.

It was early November when the Mets signed Michael Cuddyer, less than two weeks after the World Series. Cuddyer was almost 36, and he spent most of the previous season on the disabled list. His impressive hitting statistics from the prior two seasons were at least partially a function of Coors, and he played the outfield like he was riding a burro and sitting backwards. It's almost -- almost -- like the Wilpons said something like, "Fine, you can spend a little money, but you'll have to make the savings up somewhere else," which made the Mets punt their first-round draft pick on purpose. Almost.

And then the Mets took the rest of the offseason off. No creative trades, no fancy experiments. Cuddyer and done.

The Nationals had to send one of 2014's better starters to the bullpen because, ha ha, there just isn't any room, sport!

That's the setup. Now sprinkle little flakes of reality on top, just for color. Tell a Mets fan before the season that David Wright was going to have serious back problems, the kind where he talks about wanting a normal life at the press conference. Steven Matz was going to get hurt, of course, and there would be a stretch where the New York media questioned Matt Harvey's talent and heart.

Tell a Nationals fan that this is the year that Bryce Harper finally ascends and refuses to take the rest of the baseball world with him. Max Scherzer was going to be even better than he was the previous season.

What are your predicted standings? Nationals by 10 games, or 15? It was the easiest division to pick in baseball before they signed Scherzer. It was just piling on at that point.

We're here, now. The Mets have a four-game winning streak, and they're in first place. The Nationals have a four-game losing streak, and they're in second. There are still months to go, and you don't have to tell scarred and crusty Mets fans that there's a lot of season left. Still, it's worth looking at how we got here, in which "here" is defined as an August with a bloody divisional fight between the Mets and Nationals. It wouldn't have made sense in spring training, but it makes sense to us now that we've watched it all season. How did the LOL METS and the MIGHTY NATIONALS become equals? A brief history:

The Mets young pitching wasn't just that good. It was even better

At the risk of shoving my Giants-related experiences into an article about the NL East, I've seen both sides of this. I've seen fire and I've seen rain. In 2003, the Giants had Barry Bonds and three of the best pitching prospects in baseball, all ready to start their major league careers. The prospects burst into flames, with Jerome Williams being the unqualified success story of the three.

Years later, they had a gaggle of young pitchers again, and everything worked out at the same time, in just the right way.


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Cynics like to pretend that only the former scenario happens, that all prospects are doomed, and their skeletal hands will break through the fresh dirt and drag you down with them. Fans like to pretend that rotations always emerge from the prospect fantasies, and that success is forever possible, if not likely. After the Troy Tulowitzki trade, I read a few comments from Rockies fans about their Hoffman/Gray/Castro/Freeland future of golden roads and rainbow castles. Part of me wanted to remind them of the cynical scenario. Part of me remembered just how fun it was to speculate like that, and how sometimes it actually works out.

It's working out for the Mets. The Mets, who are completely weird with their injuries and improbably cheap, have the best front three in baseball, and all of the pitchers are recent prospects who could have immolated. Maybe you'll still take Clayton Kershaw/Zack Greinke/anyone, but Jacob deGrom/Noah Syndergaard/Matt Harvey troika has been dazzling, and Harvey still has room to get better the further removed from Tommy John he is. They're even better than the Nationals' front three (or four, or five) was supposed to be. That's how we're here.

If the Mets were going to chase the Nationals, either the hitting was going to be much better than we all expected, or the pitching would have to be so transcendent, the limited offense wouldn't necessarily doom them. It was the latter. And now they have some limited, but-capable upgrades with Juan Uribe and Yoenis Cespedes. They're better than they were a month ago.

Ian Desmond and Doug Fister don't like money

They just want a simple life, you know? You know the famous saying: "If you have more money, by gum, people keep asking you for stuff, and that becomes a problem, so no thanks." Both Desmond and Fister were among the Nationals' most valuable players last year, and they were pending free agents this year. Fans of confirmation bias know that pending free agents always have huge years because their pupils morph cartoonishly into a $ shape, which refracts light better and makes it easier to see 60 feet, 6 inches away.

Desmond and Fister flopped. That's 8 percent of the vaunted Nationals roster down.

Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon, and Jayson Werth have been hurt and/or awful

You can make arguments that the Nationals should have seen this all coming, but I'm not going to agree. Yes, Werth is on the older side, Strasburg has had problems with his arm and consistency, and Rendon has suffered through shoulder and lower leg injuries throughout his career, but the Nationals did exactly what they were supposed to do: Build depth around them, while still hoping for the best. It's just been a tough slog for all three, whereas the Nationals were probably set up best to handle a rough season from one or two of them.

All three of them have been disappointments. That's 20 percent of the vaunted Nationals roster down, and it's a very important 20 percent.

Ryan Zimmerman is suddenly one of the worst players in the league

That's not to say it's permanent. But he's not hitting, and he's not exactly Keith Hernandez at first base. Since coming up as a 20-year-old, Zimmerman had a 10-year streak of being an above-average hitter. Often times, he was much, much better, but even at his worst, he never let his adjusted OPS slip below the league average.

He's 30 now, though, and he's struggled through a nasty foot injury all season. A second-half surge would be a great story for someone who's been with the Nationals since they were the worst team in baseball, but that doesn't mean it's especially likely. That's about 23 percent of the Nationals' roster down.

Wilson Ramos is apparently peak Mike Matheny or Brad Ausmus, not an offense-first catcher

Solid defense from behind the plate is important. Don't minimize it. But, man, it sure was a lot cooler when he was slugging .450 and giving the Nationals a depth to their lineup that other teams could only envy.

That's a quarter of the Nationals lineup that's disappointing as all heck. The other three-fourths includes utility players, long relievers, and Dan Uggla. We don't even need to make a header for Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez being merely OK, because they've been some of the most valuable Nationals of the season. If you think of the core of a team as eight position players and five starters, then the Nationals have been disappointed with 10 of the players they were counting on before the season, either in terms of performance and injury.

It's right about here where the astute Mets fan is noticing that this has turned into what looks like a sob story about the Nationals. That's not the intent, considering the Mets have had their share of disappointment, too (Wright's injury, Juan Lagares forgetting how to hit, Travis d'Arnaud's lousy luck, other assorted injuries). It's just that if you want to know how it's August with the Mets in first place, it's basically a two-part answer:

  1. The Mets' young pitching has been even better than hoped
  2. Several of the Nationals' best players fell down an open elevator shaft

The Mets are for real. The Nats are in trouble. There's still a chance for that supremely talented, shoo-in Nationals team to show up. There's also still a chance for the Mets to keep pitching the rest of the National League into submission. What started out as baseball's least interesting race became its most interesting, and even though it makes sense now that we've followed it all season, it's still stunning.

Let this be your annual reminder that everything we know about baseball in January is written on toilet paper. You'll forget it in a few months, don't worry. It's the cycle of life.


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